Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Open-Ended Questions Embedded in Survey Instruments

06/01/2002

Obviously the great value of survey research is in its large sample size, its representativeness, and the capacity it provides for statistical analysis and causal inference. Typically the items on survey research instruments are close-ended questions based on fixed-choice response categories or questions that require respondents to rate their reactions on set scales. However, it is not uncommon for survey studies to include a limited number of items that are open ended, where respondents either write short responses in their own words with no guidance from the researcher or speak their minds into tape recorders that generate brief transcripts. Open-ended questions embedded in survey instruments typically follow more cut-and-dried queries (Were you "very happy, moderately happy, moderately unhappy, or very unhappy" with the quality of your child's care last week?) with "why?" questions designed to learn a bit more about the reasoning behind a respondent's answer. (What kinds of problems did you encounter with your child care last week?) The value of the follow-up question lies in the ability of the researchers to anticipate all the relevant fixed-choice categories. Where this is particularly vexing, open-ended questions can help to illuminate complex patterns while preserving the strength in numbers that survey research provides. They also sometimes have the secondary benefit of maintaining the engagement of subjects who may otherwise become bored and therefore less attentive to typical survey items.

At least two purposes can be served here. A key advantage to embedding qualitative research inside a survey design is that one benefits from the representativeness and sample size, while preserving the insights afforded by qualitative data. Second, open-ended responses (particularly in pilot studies) can be used to generate more nuanced fixed-choice questions for future surveys. Finally, open-ended responses can be coded and analyzed in much the same way that fixed choice questions are, but now with categories that essentially have been generated by the survey respondents rather than forced on them by the researcher. The new categories are more reflective of the experiences or views of interviewees as they see them. If the subjective understandings of respondents are the issue, this is an appropriate method for capturing them on a large scale.

Embedding open-ended questions has obvious limitations. Because of the expense involved in coding the material, open-ended questions are not always practical in large-scale surveys with thousands of respondents. If cost becomes a significant issue, it may be necessary to code a random subsample of the responses. Questionnaires administered face to face or over the telephone can still utilize open-ended items by having the interviewer record the responses or by using tape recorders. Problems of thoroughness can be minimized through careful training of interviewers. However, open-ended questions can be problematic in self-administered and mail questionnaires, particularly when one is dealing with respondents who have literacy problems.

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